Dutch veteran Bert van Marwijk’s UAE reign began in earnest on Saturday when his first squad departed to Austria for a pivotal nine-day training camp ahead of World Cup 2022 qualifiers kicking off in September.
A much-changed 27-man roster was announced at the end of May by the 67-year-old, whose extensive coaching resume includes assuring in 2017 that Saudi Arabia’s 12-year absence from the global tournament was at an end and guiding his native Netherlands to defeat in the 2010 showpiece. Celebrated 2016 AFC Player of the Year Omar Abdulrahman was absent from the group that took off from Dubai Airport.
The playmaker, however, has been in Lienz, Austria with Saudi Professional League giants Al Hilal and was reported last week to have received the medical all-clear in Barcelona, Spain from renowned orthopaedic surgeon Dr Ramon Cugat after October’s serious knee injury. That blow ruled him out of January’s Asian Cup on home soil.
Uncapped players in the original announcement included Al Ain’s summer buy Mohammed Ali Shaker, versatile Al Jazira youngster Mohammed Al Attas and prodigious Al Wasl forward Ali Saleh. The Whites – whose only World Cup showing came in 1990 – will also congregate from August 24-September 10, a period that includes their opening qualifiers on September 5 and 10.
Opponents for the second round in the elongated AFC process will be revealed in Wednesday’s group-stage draw.
Van Marwijk has been denied the presence of his Al Wahda contingent because they are preparing in the Netherlands for next month’s 2019 AFC Champions League round-of-16 double-header against SPL champions Al Nassr.
A concurrent training camp for the UAE Under-23s is being held in close proximity in Salzburg. The starlets are getting set for January’s AFC U-23 Championship in Thailand, the final round of qualification for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
UAE TRAINING SQUAD
Khalid Essa, Bandar Al Ahbabi, Mohammed Ali Shaker, Ahmed Barman, Ryan Yaslam, (Al Ain); Hassan Al Muharrami, Fahad Al Dhahani (Bani Yas); Omar Abdulrahman (Al Hilal); Ali Khaseif, Khalifa Al Hammadi, Mohammed Al Attas, Salem Rashed, Khalfan Mubarak, Zayed Al Ameri, Ali Mabkhout (Al Jazira); Habib Fardan, Tariq Ahmed, Mohamed Al Akbari (Al Nasr); Walid Abbas, Majed Hassan, Ismail Al Hammadi, Ahmed Khalil (Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club); Adel Al Hosani, Majed Suroor, Ali Hassan Saleh (Sharjah); Ali Saleh, Ali Salmeen (Al Wasl)
Fabio De Lima arrived as a nobody at Al Wasl five years and transformed himself into an Arabian Gulf League legend.
De Lima, 25, has netted 93 times in 116 top-flight matches since an initial two-year loan was inked from Atletico Goianiense.
These supreme performances have not gone unnoticed. Sport360 talked to the forward about enduring links to Saudi Arabia, representing the UAE and life at Al Wasl:
Tell us about your beginnings with football, surely there were many odds?
My beginning in soccer was a little bit difficult, like many Brazilian players. My family was lower middle class, with a few opportunities.
But I became a professional footballer at age 16. I left Brazil at 20-years old and I am still in the UAE at 25. I’m very proud to have reached these objectives.
You are the best foreign scorer in the history of Al Wasl, what does this mean to you?
It is an honour to have achieved that number of goals in a club of the greatness of Al Wasl. Many good players worked here and this makes this achievement even bigger. There have been five seasons with more than 120 goals – and I hope that many others will come next season.
Why did you refuse to leave when Saudi clubs negotiated for you?
I had some proposals last summer and during the season, but I chose to stay for a few reasons.
There was a proposal in which I thought it was not the time to leave, because the club [Wasl] was not doing very well in the league and I wanted to help.
In the other case, Al Wasl, themselves, did not even consider accepting the offer.
If Al Hilal or Al Nassr make offers for you, which would you choose?
They are big clubs, the largest in Saudi Arabia, in my opinion. But, I’m an Al Wasl player, my focus is working here while wearing that yellow shirt.
Why did Al Wasl fall in comparison to previous seasons? Did ex-coach Rodolfo Arruabarrena’s departure affect the team?
The departure of the coach affected the team a little, because he had the group in hand and we trusted him a lot. These exchanges did not work very well, but we will continue working for the best results.
Who was the best local and foreign player in the UAE league last season?
In my opinion, the best local player was Majed (Hassan), of Shabab Al Ahli Dubai Club, and the best foreigner was Igor (Coronado) from Sharjah.
Some are talking about the fact that you will get UAE nationality and play for the team in the coming period. What is your comment on this?
This comment has been made for years, but I didn’t receive any invitation. I know the players well and the local soccer, because I’ve spent almost six years in the country. It would be an honour to naturalise me in the UAE and play for the national team.
Veteran Greek goalkeeper Dimitrios ‘Dimi’ Konstantopoulos is being linked with a move to a Dubai club after leaving Championship side Middlesbrough.
The 40-year-old, capped once by his nation in 2011, is believed to be mulling over a lucrative 12-month deal with an as yet unnamed Arabian Gulf League club.
However, it might be in a coaching capacity as AGL rules prohibit clubs buying foreign keepers. UAE sides previously were able to include four foreign players in a matchday squad, with one being of Asian ethnicity or with an Asian qualified passport.
But rules were changed last summer allowing clubs to include up to five other players who are either UAE passport holders, players born to Emirati women, or UAE residents.
But rules remain in place stating goalkeepers must be Emirati, lending weight to the possibility that Konstantopoulos could be set for a coaching role, like former Arsenal stopper Manuel Almunia, who is a goalkeeping coach at Al Jazira.
The former AEK Athens custodian has spoken with former Boro team-mate Alvaro Negredo who is with Dubai-based Al Nasr and admitted he is already planning for when he does finally hang up his gloves.
“My plan is that I want to coach after I retire but I have not set a date for when that is,” he told the Northern Echo.
“I have done my B Licence and now I am working towards my A.”